As one of the newer faculty members on campus, Professor of Chemistry (and Chair of the Department of Chemistry) Tricia Shepherd brings a fresh perspective and interdisciplinary skills to help our Chemistry department — and her students — reach the next level.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a professor?
I never wanted to be the sort of professor who stands in front of five hundred students and lectures. I love to ask questions, and I love to work individually with students. I incorporate Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) in all my classes. This means that students collaborate in small groups on specially designed activities that help them learn to apply scientific concepts, analyze and evaluate scientific information, and communicate these ideas to others. My role as the instructor is to guide students, facilitate discussion and provide context for the material.
Q: How does this benefit students?
This process of learning is similar to what students will experience outside the classroom. They’ll need to be able to ask questions, evaluate information and assess whether or not they understand a new idea. For many of them, my classes are the first time they have experienced anything like this.
Another benefit is that it allows me to better individualize my teaching. I always say, “When I talk to everyone, I'm talking to no one.” No one’s average. Every student has a different background and unique perspective to contribute to the learning process. I think it’s important to create a classroom environment that acknowledges, encourages and celebrates this diversity.
Q: What is your research area within chemistry?
I'm a physical chemist, and I focus on model development and dynamic simulations, so I write computer programs or use existing computer programs to understand physical systems. I’m not actually in the lab, and I don’t touch chemicals at all. When I discovered that you could “do chemistry” on the computer, I was excited because in the lab, I was a little bit of a disaster. I broke a lot of the glassware as an undergraduate! And this works out because I love numbers and analyzing data, so computational chemistry is a good fit for me.
Q: Does the nature of your field lend itself to interdisciplinary collaboration with other researchers?
Yes, definitely. Any experimentalist today, in any field, will often have to add in a computation as part of their research. I’m working with our new inorganic chemistry professor to do some calculations for his synthesis work. That's really fun because he does all the synthesis, and I can model the molecules and help make predictions that feed into his experiments. In addition to publishing in physical chemistry journals, I’ve also published in computer science education, and I had a project with a biologist where I wrote the code for her to help her analyze bird songs, so I have an upcoming paper in ecology, too.
Q: How would you want to leave your mark on the world?
For every student that I engage with or interact with, I would love to help them get to the next level, whatever that may be. I hope I can somehow help them in their pursuit of whatever they want to do. I’m really all about my students.
In 2016, Tricia Shepherd received The POGIL Project’s inaugural Early Achievement Award for use of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning in secondary education.